Tuesday, 31 January 2017

pet habits

Every pet has its own pet habits, and over time develops rituals that no other pet wants or is allowed to do.  The big anxious tabby used to jump on to a particular chair in the kitchen when he was hungry.  How this started neither of us can remember, but it became a definite system of communication.  Other cats might have stared at the food cupboard meaningfully, but he jumped on to his special chair.  No other cat has hit on the same idiosyncratic method of making its wishes known, and I don't suppose any will.

Our Ginger has taken to being allowed into our bedroom in the morning.  That's not so unusual, lots of pet owners let their pet into their bedroom for at least part of the night.  We draw the line at allowing him to sleep in there all night, because I am not ready to go the full Huple's cat, and besides he might want to be let out during the night.  He is an old boy and who knows how strong his bladder is nowadays.  Instead he squawks outside the door when he wants to be let in.  We have told him sternly that half past five is too early, but he's generally there at this time of year between seven and a quarter past.

It's a nice question who lets him in.  The Systems Administrator's side of the bed is nearer the door, but the unspoken convention is that whoever lets the cat in is responsible for it thereafter, and that includes preventing Our Ginger from bothering the other person if they are still asleep.  There are times when Our Ginger curls up nicely between us, dozes off, and everybody can have another fifty winks until it is time to get up.  But there are other times when Our Ginger wants love and affection,  He shows his love by sitting on your chest, or your back, or your shoulder, depending on which way up you are lying, and putting his face very close to yours while purring loudly.  He likes faces, and if he is feeling especially fond he may try to put his toes up the Systems Administrator's nose, or chew my hair.  And he likes being stroked, and demands this token of your love by nudging you with a damp nose, before settling down to purr for as long as the stroking lasts.  Dare to stop and you will get another nudge.  Occasionally he tries to burrow under the bedclothes or decides he really wants to lie on your pillow.

If you were asleep before it is not very easy to go on sleeping with close on a stone of ginger cat lying on your chest, paws pressed firmly against your throat, or even to go on sleeping with your life's partner scrabbling around beside you and hissing Get off, cat as they try to tug the cat back to their side of the bed.  Our Ginger's paws long ago lost their velvet quality because he can no longer retract his claws.  This is mildly uncomfortable when he prods your face, and unnerving when you can hear the little scratching sounds of them catching in the duvet cover.  He dribbles from time to time, as old cats do, and while I know that as Jeremy Hardy helpfully pointed out cats are all covered in dried spit, still stroking a cat that you know on a theoretical level to be coated in cat saliva is not the same as having gobbets of cat dribble fall on your face.  You are not entirely safe even if Our Ginger's face is not directly above yours, since if the accumulation of spit annoys him he occasionally and without warning shakes his head.

But is doesn't seem fair that the Systems Administrator should always be the one trying to placate Our Ginger, delivering the stroking while being dribbled on and trying to haul Our Ginger off me with one arm, simply on the basis of where the bedroom door happens to be.  This morning the squawking started just after seven, punctuated by some thumping and a few squeaks from Mr Fluffy, and as I needed to get up to go to the loo I let Our Ginger in and stroked him devotedly for half an hour without disturbing the SA too much.  It is Our Ginger's bit of protected quality time with us now that he shares the rest of the day with the kitties, and he purred tremendously for the entire half hour.  Dribbling, claws, and all, there is no other creature on earth that is so lavishly and unambiguously happy and delighted with our company as Our Ginger when he is allowed into the bedroom in the morning.

Monday, 30 January 2017

indoor gardening

The hedges and roses remained unpruned for another day.  After breakfast I went round to the back garden to see if it was really as cold and damp as I thought it was.  The lawn was sodden.  Moisture clung to every leaf and branch and surface.  Chest tight, skin prickling, and muscles gently aching I had to admit that I still had a respiratory infection.  On days when there's some warmth in the sun and the world dries out I can believe I am over it, but the chill of a thoroughly dank January day quickly dispels that illusion.

After lunch I did venture out to sweep the conservatory.  It was dry in there compared to outdoors, and protected from the wind (not that there was much.  The blades of the wind turbine on the farm on the opposite hill were stationary) and I thought that swaddled in my customary layers of winter gardening clothing I should be alright for a couple of hours.  And I was itching to get on with something.

A lot of leaves had dropped, and I wanted to clear them out before the room became a nest of botrytis.  The climbing fuchsia 'Lady Boothby' had lost about half of hers but not all, which is a bore as she'll probably discard the rest in stages over the next couple of months so that I have to keep sweeping up.  Still, at least fuchsias are supposed to drop their leaves.  Her neighbour on the back wall of the conservatory Jasminum mesnyi, a tender jasmine bearing semi-double yellow flowers in late spring, is nominally evergreen but the leaves on half the plant had faded to a nasty papery greyish-brown.  I picked them off, hoping that since the stems were still green and healthy it would replace them in due course, and wondering if the loss was due to cold, over watering, under watering, or the aftermath of an attack of red spider mite.

All of the leaves have dropped off the Tibouchina I bought at a Plant Heritage meeting.  I can't remember if it did that last winter, or if this is a new development.  Tibouchina are tender shrubs from Brazil, with purple flowers for the most part, but I don't know which species mine is because it wasn't labelled.  It grew quite vigorously last summer becoming rather lanky and I checked with its former owners at a previous Plant Heritage meeting that I'd be OK trimming it in the spring.  Now I've just missed the chance to ask them a supplementary question as to whether it normally loses its leaves or if that is a sign that something has gone badly wrong.  According to one post on a forum I found somebody else overwinters theirs in the garage and it loses all its leaves but recovers, but it would be nice to have an answer from somebody that I could be sure knew what they were talking about.

The big fleshy begonia I bought at the Great Dixter plant fair has gone mushy in places but most of it wasn't too bad.  Every leaf has dropped from Begonia luxurians but the canes were still standing intact, one now taller than I am, so I expect it will leaf up in the spring.  I removed the fabulously mouldy remains of two flower clusters from the top and fished the brown remains of the leaves out of the other plants where they'd fallen.

Some of the Dibleys streptocarpus have died back entirely.  I'm afraid that's not a good sign.  I normally manage to keep them going through the winter, and I'm not sure what I've done differently this time round, although I did kill one by over watering a couple of seasons back so maybe I've overcompensated the other way.

It was cold in the conservatory, and I didn't quite last to the end of the film review podcast and ended up listening to the last five minutes in the hall.  A frost free conservatory is not really a very jolly place in the depths of winter.  In fact, some of the plants looked so pathetic that I put the fan heater on as I shut the door for the night.  Rather like me they could do with some sunshine.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

overdue pruning

Yesterday morning and this morning I pruned the grape vine.  Vines are notorious for bleeding if cut once the sap is rising, and received wisdom says that they should be tackled before the new year.  I fully intended to prune ours then, except that I was ill and nothing got done in the garden, not even urgent pruning.  Since then I have been seized with guilt each time I read another gardening article telling me to prune the vine before the end of December, if not in November.  Finally the deed is done, and it did not bleed, or at least not at the time.

One year in a spirit of enquiry I severed one stem, not too thick, at a time when I thought the sap would be rising, to see what bleeding looked like.  It was pretty dramatic.  I'd imagined an occasional drip, a sort of sniffle, but liquid ran out of the cut end like a running tap.  I could quite see why you would not want that happening all over the plant.

I call it pruning, but apart from the fact that I bother to cut back to just above a bud and avoid leaving snags it isn't a process that any viticulturalist would recognise.  I have read about systems of grape vine pruning, and always finished up thoroughly confused.  My pruning, or cutting back, consisted of removing the yards-long shoots that the vine made at some point last year when I wasn't looking, to leave short side branches, apart from a few long shoots that I kept to lead the plant further around the wire fence on which it lives.  Vines make a phenomenal amount of growth each year with no encouragement or feeding whatsoever.  Proper vine growers must have some method of dealing with this during the season.

I call it 'the vine' but in fact I think there are two different plants.  Unfortunately due to poor record keeping I don't know which they are, and since vines are very ready to root themselves if you let a branch touch the ground I am not even sure where one ends and the other begins.  I have never had a decent bunch of grapes, even in the year when I spent ages thinning them.  I have cooked with the leaves, stuffing them with a mixture of spiced rice and mincemeat, and they were very good, but the main purpose of the vine from my point of view is decorative, to screen the anti-rabbit netting around the vegetable plot.

The vegetable plot itself is desperately weedy and the wooden edges of several of the beds have collapsed.  I tried to imagine whether this was going to be the year I finally manage to grow vegetables, but I'm not sure.  It's nearly February and I haven't tackled any of the boundary hedges yet, or pruned most of the roses.  Losing a good month's worth of gardening time to flu has set me behind.  Luckily it is forecast to be warmer this week, so I might start getting things done if it doesn't rain too much.  It will be the moment of truth for the vine, if the warmer weather prompts the sap to start rising, whether it bleeds anyway out of its recently cut ends. 

Saturday, 28 January 2017

a new lecture season

Today saw the start of the 2017 lecture season for the Suffolk group of Plant Heritage.  I arrived rather early, since I'd volunteered to help put chairs out.  This was prompted in equal parts by a genuine desire to be helpful, knowing that helping is one of the best ways of getting to know other club members, and an entirely selfish desire to have a reason to arrive early to get a parking space. The Plant Heritage group is well supported, and there are barely enough spaces as it is and some of them are so small and tight I find it jolly tricky wriggling in and out of them.  Stowupland is one of those linear villages with a busy B road running through it and very limited on-street parking, while the village hall car park is shared with the next door sports field which is sometimes in use on Saturday afternoons.  One way and another it pays to be early.

The committee member in charge of chairs seemed happy with my handiwork, but when we all sat down ready for the lecture the woman next to me remarked that they had put the chairs really close together.  I did not admit that it had been me, but filed the observation away for next time. I'd been generous with the gaps between rows, but she was right, I should have spaced them out sideways.  Being fairly small myself I forget that some others spread more than I do.

The lecture was by the editor of the RHS specialist publications, which include The Plantsman magazine, the Orchid Review, the RHS Plant Finder, various yearbooks and some gardening books.  I don't subscribe to any of them.  I am slightly surprised anybody still buys the Plant Finder in hard copy given that all the information is searchable online.  The Plantsman is aimed at keen plant lovers whose desire to read stuff about plants is not fully satisfied by the RHS monthly magazine sent to all members.  The Plantsman covers genus reviews, plant hunting, advanced cultivation and propagation techniques, plant breeding, horticultural science, taxonomy and nomenclature, and RHS trials.  It is only sixty four pages long, and only slightly bigger than A5, but contains mostly articles and not advertising, mainly because as the editor ruefully admitted most specialist growers took the view that anybody that interested in plants would already have heard of them.  Oh, and it has a circulation of only 3,000.

It was interesting hearing how a magazine is put together, and I have enjoyed leafing through my freebie sample issue of The Plantsman which I shall read properly at some point.  The December 2016 edition includes articles on propagating cylamens by cuttings (new to me), genetic diversity or lack thereof in cultivated and wild populations of Acer griseum, dahlias in Mexico, and the great plantswoman Valerie Finnis.  I am not sure I'll be taking out a subscription, though, because it is £29 a year to RHS members (more to non members).  £7.25 per issue seems a lot for quite a slim magazine.  You can pick up a whole hardback book for that on Amazon, if you are patient about stalking titles until they are remaindered and the internet is briefly awash with new copies, or if you don't mind going second hand.  Public libraries weeding their collections can be a useful source.  Some of the ex library books I've bought don't look as though they had ever been borrowed.

I mentioned the price and the circulation figures of The Plantsman to the Systems Administrator, who said briskly that it was too expensive.  I think it probably is.  On the basis of today's figures less than one per cent of the entire RHS membership are subscribers.  If the RHS dropped the price could they get this up to two or three per cent?  They don't really promote The Plantsman at all on their website.  I logged on to the home page to check how much the magazine cost but couldn't see any link to publications, and when I experimentally tried clicking on shop that got me to various books I could buy but still not their specialist magazines or year books.  I typed plantsman magazine into the search box but the message came up that it was unable to find any results, though it did suggest I try some of the more popular search terms Diary Mugs Gold Leaf Gardening Gloves and Address Book.  In the end I found the right page using Google.

Friday, 27 January 2017

one step forward

An email plopped into my inbox this week to confirm what I'd heard on the radio.  Following the petition on the parliament website calling for it to be made illegal for employers to require women to wear high heels at work which attracted 152,420 signatures, one of them mine, the House of Commons Petitions Committee launched a joint investigation with the Women and Equalities Committee, and their conclusion was that the Equalities Act 2010 was not fully effective in protecting workers from discrimination, and needed beefing up along with awareness campaigns aimed at employers and workers.  MPs will debate the subject at 4.30 pm on Monday 6 March in Westminster Hall, and the Government will respond to the joint Committees' report within two months.

I was pleased that so far progress is being made on the issue.  Admittedly, compared to the economic impact of Brexit, the fate of UK nationals currently living in Europe and EU nationals residing here (and the question of whether the lettuce farm will be able to find anybody to harvest the lettuces), the Syrian crisis, the mess in Iraq and Libya and Afghanistan, Islamic State, the Lord's Resistance Army, almost four years left to go with Donald Trump as President of the United States and an unknown number of years more of Putin, North Korea, the emergence of antibiotic resistant superbugs, the looming health crisis in the face of an aging and increasingly obese and diabetic population, female genital mutilation, the deteriorating mental health and wellbeing of Britain's young people, and global warming, the question of whether or not British women have to work all day in uncomfortable shoes that impede their mobility and are bad for their long term health is not the most burningly urgent issue of the day.

It is wrong, though, and goes along with a bunch of other things that are wrong like requiring women but not men to wear makeup or dye their hair blonde or wear body revealing clothing in order to carry out their jobs despite those things having nothing to do with the job of being a receptionist (as in the case of Nicola Thorp who started the petition).  Or a lawyer, or accountant, or project manager, or data entry clerk, or risk management officer, or any of the zillion other things that women and men do in offices and businesses the length and breadth of the land, only the men are judged on whether they send visitors to the right meeting room and tell their host they've arrived, or bring their projects in on time and on budget, or input their data correctly, without the additional requirement to look sexy (in the eyes of other men who equate sexiness with makeup, blonde hair and high heels).

Maybe I should write to my MP to tell him I signed the petition and trust he will find the time to be at Westminster Hall on the afternoon of 6 March.  He is very keen on Brexit and may not put the question of women's mandatory uncomfortable and unhealthy footwear at the top of his list of things to do.  Theresa May did not initially sound convinced that the Equalities Act 2010 wasn't enough for the job.  It would be a pity if this one were kicked into the long grass with an immaculate kitten heel.  Besides, ruling that receptionists do not have to wear high heels will annoy Piers Morgan.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

a cold day

I don't think the thermometer ever rose above freezing all day.  There was no frost on the grass and I was surprised when I went armed with a can of water to refill the hens' galvanised drinker to find that the top was iced on and I needed to go back and get another jug of hot water before I could get the lid off.  I was even more surprised when I set off at ten to meet my friends and saw that the car thermometer was still registering minus two.

The first of them to arrive greeted me in the car park, and said that she had been thinking of walking until she walked as far as her dustbin and changed her mind, and it was very odd, there had been no ice on her windscreen but the dashboard display said it was minus two.  The next friend to arrive said that her car only thought it was minus one.  It was cold, anyway.  We forgot to ask for a vote from the fourth to turn up, and the fifth never made it, leaving us with an empty chair and me with a vague feeling of anxiety on her behalf and the wistful thought that if I'd known she wasn't coming I needn't have pinched the extra chair and arranged myself with my knees wrapped round a table leg.

When I got home there was an apologetic message on the answerphone from the missing fifth friend, saying that she had forgotten to write our coffee on the calendar and so had forgotten to come.  And that her husband had died on Saturday, but she would have come anyway.  This is the friend whose husband was in a nursing home with Altzheimers so bad he didn't recognise her, the one who started signing her Christmas cards just from her and not from them both two years ago, so that I wondered if he had died and had to make discreet enquiries to discover that he had not and it must have been that he was no longer with her in any meaningful sense.  And now he really has died.  Life is sometimes very cruel.

It was so cold that I put the greenhouse and conservatory heaters back on even though it was the middle of the day, and then I spent the afternoon doing my tax return.  One way and another today did not pan out to be a barrel of laughs.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

tidy desk, tidy mind

It was foggy again this morning, but this time the fog hung around all day, so it's a good thing I saw to the bees yesterday.  It was so damp and cold that even Mr Cool objected to going out.  Instead all three kittens wandered about the house disconsolately with only occasional outbreaks of wrestling to break the monotony, plus one unfortunate episode when I exchanged my new house shoes for some outdoor shoes to go and put food on the bird table, and came back inside to find Mr Cool chewing one of them.  They are Danish, made of one hundred per cent wool felt with calfskin soles, in petrol blue, and extremely cosy.  They are basically slippers, but I suppose they are marketed as house shoes because that sounds more upmarket and reassuringly hygge.  In contrast wearing slippers all day might mark you out as ill, slovenly, or a benefits scrounger.  The house shoes (or slippers) are washable, with the rather marvellous advice to vacuum them first, but it remains to be seen whether I can keep them respectable or whether they become very slovenly indeed as they accrete ash, soot, dust, and fur, culminating in the moment when I accidentally drop cat food on them.

Meanwhile I tidied my desk.  Now I've finished the contrast with what it was like before is so great I wish I jolly well had stuck to my idea of photographing it every day.  It was a proper tidy, going through all the lose stuff on the desk plus the pile of paper in my filing tray plus the wallet of paper that should have been in the filing tray but was shoved in a folder to save it from the cats.  The top deck of the filing tray had cracked, finally falling victim to the weight of cat trying to sleep in it, but I solved that problem by swapping the top and bottom trays over.

I found all sorts of things.  There was a large mysterious piece of plastic that the Systems Administrator said had come off an old printer and was rubbish.  A small mysterious piece of plastic that the SA said was an in-car phone charger and kept.  Several railway books belonging to the SA. Nearly a year's worth of bank statements, joint bank statements and credit card statements which shows how long it is since I did any filing.  Assorted financial statements I need for my tax return which was why I could not put off tidying the desk any longer.  Old plant catalogues I don't need to keep.  Recent plant catalogues I will keep for now.  Pieces of paper with notes about various plants written on them that needed to be transcribed to a more permanent record.  A small rectangle of plywood, origins and purpose unknown.  A screwdriver.  Our annual electricity summary.  Our annual water statement.  Old magazines from various clubs I belong to, which I threw away after scrupulously ripping up any pages that had personal contact details on them.  The eighteen-month guarantee for my previous watch battery which showed me that the old battery had run out five days after the guarantee expired, and that the price of watch batteries had risen by an extortionate amount.  My birthday cards (my birthday was over four months ago).  New terms and conditions from my bank and then even newer terms and conditions replacing the previous new ones.  A card with the dates of green waste collections in 2017, and a booklet detailing what waste now would and wouldn't be accepted at which Essex recycling centres.  The house insurance renewal.  A card from the cat rescue centre with the kittens' birth date on it.  The plastic base of my 2016 Zen desk calendar, allegedly recyclable.  A small 2016 desk calendar with pictures of Korats on it including some of my aunt's, a present from my aunt, that used to live on the ice cream making machine.  A new spiral bound garden lecture notebook with a snazzy red cover with white dots.  An unsolicited notebook from the woodland charity for recording people's thoughts about trees, still empty.  My old iPod docking station that I wasn't sure whether to keep or not, since the speakers were quite good but the iPod was broken.  The old iPod, now stuck on playing nothing but Philip Glass.

Eventually every piece of paper had been read and checked to see if it could be thrown away, and every piece that had to be kept had been filed somewhere vaguely sensible.  The wooden articulated artist's model was back on his stand after spending the second half of last year lying down in two bits.  Months' worth of dust and cat fur had been wiped away.  It actually looks like a desk, a working platform, rather than a kitten's playground cum rubbish tip.  I told myself that I really should be more organised about keeping my filing up to date, and more decisive about disposing of out of date or broken things.  We shall see.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

treating the bees

When I looked out of the bathroom window this morning I could just see the tops of the trees through the fog.  I went out to open the hen house armed with a jug of hot water to de-ice their galvanised drinker, and found I didn't need it and needn't have set the glasshouse heaters last night for it was not actually freezing.  There was still a thick crust of ice on the pond, and when I looked out after giving the cats their breakfast I saw Mr Fluffy and Mr Fidget sliding about on it.  I tried to coax them off, but Mr Fluffy thought that running on the spot was a great game.  It was still too thick for them to fall through, but before the end of the afternoon the Systems Administrator broke it up with a stake.

The sun soon burnt off the mist and had real warmth in it while there was no wind at all, so I decided it was time to dose the bees for varroa.  I'd normally have aimed to do this between Christmas and the New Year, since you want to pick a time when there is as little brood as possible in the hive.  The varroa mites spend some of their life cycle inside the capped brood cells with the bee larvae, and any that are sealed away when you apply the treatment will be protected by their wax covering.  I'd been in no fit state to mess around with bees then, though, and for the past few days it has been so savagely cold I didn't want to open the hives at all, but today was perfect.  I didn't want it to be too warm, since you are supposed to trickle a measured amount of treatment over each seam of bees, meaning you want them to be clustered together into a nice tight ball.  If they break the cluster and start wandering all over the place you don;t know where to direct the treatment, and it's important not to overdose them.

When I started beekeeping it was not long since the varroa mite had arrived in the UK, and the recommended course of treatment was to hang strips impregnated with pyrethroids inside the beehive.  The pyrethroids were more lethal to the mites than the bees, and so a good measure of control was achieved.  Over the next few years the mites developed drug resistance, which was pretty much inevitable.  If you try to eradicate a pest chemically using only one class of chemicals, and beekeepers only had one class of chemical, any individual pests that happen to have an unusually high tolerance to that chemical will survive and breed, and in due course you will have selectively bred a resistant population of pests.  That is why at Writtle we were taught that a basic principle if using chemical crop protection is to rotate between different classes of chemical treatment so that any pests that survive the first round will with any luck be done for in a subsequent one

There was a suggestion when resistance began to appear that beekeepers were partly to blame for using the pyrethroid strips incorrectly, leaving them in the hives for too long or reusing them and so exposing the varroa to sublethal doses that allowed them to build up resistance, but I'm not sure that follows.  Even if an individual mite could develop higher tolerance through prolonged low exposure, like a human being building up tolerance to arsenic or alcohol, would it be heritable? Either way, I was always careful to use my strips properly because I was brought up to be respectful of medicines, but the time came when there was no point in applying them any more.

No other single treatment has been as effective as the pyrethroid strips used to be.  I tried applying trays of a thymol based gel for a couple of seasons, the idea being that the thymol was more objectionable to the mites than the bees, but gave up, partly because some friends who used them reported that their bees disliked it so much they had simply absconded, and partly because it meant I had to change the hive floors specially for the treatment.  When I started beekeeping hives came with solid wooden floors, then somebody hit on the notion that if you used a fairly fine wire mesh then any varroa mites that fell off the bees would drop through the floor and out of the hive before they could climb back on.  The open mesh floor would not offer total control, but could help as part of an integrated pest management system, which has been the buzzword for a few years now in beekeeping as well as horticulture.

You can't use a thymol gel varroa treatment on an open mesh floor, though, because the fumes need to build up in the hive as the gel evaporates and as they are heavier than air they would sink out through the floor.  I leave my bees on the open mesh floors all year round, after some initial uncertainty about whether it would be too cold in the winter, and have found that works fine, if anything better than the solid floor because condensation can't collect in puddles inside the hive. Damp is worse for bees than cold.  My general view on beehives after many years of beekeeping is that I don't pull them around and take them apart more than I have to.  It stresses the bees, and a stressed colony is a disease prone and unproductive colony.  And changing floors is a fiddle.  The brood box is heavy to lift when full of stores, and once the bees start coming out of the bottom it is very difficult to put it down on its new floor without squashing some of them.  And getting the entrance block into the gap between floor and brood box is another fiddle where it is only too easy to squash your bees.  Sometimes you want to look at the floor, to check for problems, but I didn't want to have to change every floor in the apiary and then change them back each time I treated for varroa.

For the past few years I've been trickling a solution of oxalic acid over the bees.  The legal status of oxalic acid as a veterinary medicine was slightly obscure, but the big beekeeping suppliers sold it and the bee inspectors turned a blind eye or decided the ambiguity in the beekeepers' favour, because we had to treat the bees with something and there wasn't a lot out there.  Now there is a licenced treatment available in the UK, called Api-Bioxal, and a government email arrived before Christmas warning that it was illegal to use oxalic acid and that we must buy the authorised product.  That's what I did, being one of those people who always reads the leaflet and finishes courses of antibiotics.  The Api-Bioxal crystals are dissolved in sugar syrup and trickled over the bees at the rate of five millilitres per seam of bees, which means all the bees huddled together between two adjacent combs, at a maximum of ten per hive, and the fastest way to do it so as to not have the hive open for longer than necessary is to fill ten plastic syringes before you open the hive and use as many as you need to.  I forgot to buy any syringes when I ordered the chemical because I was feeling distinctly sub par, but fortunately we had some in the kitchen drawer, a legacy of some past pet's illness, and if we hadn't then the SA has them for railway modelling.

I feel pretty irritated, though, because I read the instructions on the back of the packet several times very carefully to make sure I applied it correctly, and as far as I can see the active ingredient is hydrated oxalic acid, which is according to Wikipedia a commonly encountered form.  Oxalic acid is not a new active molecule, on the contrary it has been around for millennia.  You will find it in rhubarb leaves and spinach.  The Systems Administrator lent me a pair of small scales capable of measuring accurately to the last fraction of a gramme, because I wanted to split the contents of the packet instead of wasting sugar making up a full half litre of treatment when I only wanted a maximum of two hundred millilitres, and as I opened the packet I remarked that according to the instructions I ought to be wearing gloves and a protective mask, and the SA said oxalic acid wasn't that toxic, he used to use it to scrub rust stains off the boat.

And it's true, it is still sold for that purpose.  A kilo of oxalic acid sold as a wood bleach will set you back £11.75 including VAT.  The smallest packet I could buy in the form licenced as Api-Bioxal cost £10.99 for 35 grammes.  That was sufficient to treat ten hives, which was twice as much as I wanted and more than most hobby beekeepers would need.  When I was treasurer of my local beekeeping association I handled the bee disease insurance premiums, and so saw how many hives each member expected to have during the year.  Relatively few had more than five, and a lot didn't admit to more than three.  The instructions on the Api-Bioxal packet said that it was good until 2019 unopened, but once opened it had a shelf life of only three months, so it's not as though anybody can save the other half or two thirds of the packet until the next season.  And not everybody has scales capable of weighing to the last gramme.  Why can't the manufacturers at least break it down into smaller ten gramme sachets so that customers don't have to open the whole packet at once?  I would not dream of trying to treat my bees with wood bleach, but I do feel that hobby beekeepers are being mugged, forced to pay over the odds for a chemical that's been around for donkey's years and to buy it in uneconomically large sizes.

Monday, 23 January 2017

winter's blast

It's been a cold couple of days.  I've run the heaters in the greenhouse and conservatory for the past two nights, and left them on all yesterday, partly because it was so cold and partly so that I wouldn't forget to switch them on again when I got back from the concert.  It would be a terribly expensive business if the whole winter was like this, but tonight will be only the fourth I've had to use them, and it is forecast to be safely back above freezing by the weekend.  When you look at the price of plants, and tot up the replacement cost of my half dozen Geranium maderense alone, you can see that except in the longest and most savage winters it pays to keep some growing space frost free, quite apart from the fact that I am attached to my plants.

I used to be much more hawkish about switching the heaters on if the forecast was for anything below zero, but experience has taught that the glass is enough to keep the odd night of frost out if the thermometer only dips to minus one or so.  The kind of weather that produces overnight frosts tends to also give us sunny days, and there is some thermal gain to be had under glass even in the winter.  Plus, as Peter Gibbs explained in his talk to my Plant Heritage group a couple of years ago, the earth acts as a great reservoir of heat so if you cover it with glass or plastic or even fleece you can hold in enough of the warmth to protect your plants from light frosts.  It gets trickier when there is a whole run of freezing nights, and I imagine the heat gradually being sucked out of the concrete base of the greenhouse and the brick wall at the back of the conservatory.

It helps being fairly close to the coast.  I've seen reports of minus eight degrees at Writtle outside Chelmsford, and I'm sure it didn't get anywhere near that cold here.  I don't know how cold it did get because I don't have a garden thermometer, but if it had got down to minus eight various things would be brown and dead.  It also helps that it is only January and not late February after a mild spell to lure plants into growth.  Cistus that have made it unscathed through a normal winter can have their new leaves badly scorched by even moderate frosts once they've started back into life. They generally grow out of it, but it is depressing to suddenly have to add Trim out dead Cistus shoots to your already long list of Things to Do.  Our climate allows us to grow an amazing range of garden plants, but one reason why species from places with distinct Continental climates can suffer is that they can't cope with the start-stop-go-stop English winter.

The witch hazel flowers are not bothered by frost.  I went and stared at them this morning from a polite distance, because by then the frost had melted to leave a very soggy lawn and I knew from bitter experience that the suede boots I was wearing would become soaked through within seconds if I trod on the grass.  The Systems Administrator went out while the frost was still encasing every branch and stem to take some photographs.  I think the SA knows better than to have walked on the frozen lawn, but if not the blackened footprints will give the game away in due course.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

a musical interlude

I made it to the music society concert, and the huge expensive thyme infused throat sweets preserved my decency and I did not cough, and the hall was jolly cold although the heating had been on.  We all sat there in our coats, while the pianist appeared perfectly comfortable in a sleeveless dress.  A friend told me she would be feeling OK because of the adrenaline, but I hope she didn't get chilled.

The concert opened with a suite by Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre.  Born twenty years before JS Bach, she performed at the court of the Sun King aged five, published her first set of suites for harpsichord at the age of twenty-two, and was the first woman to have an opera performed at the Academie Royale de Musique.  Radio 3 chose her as the Composer of the Week back in 2015 as part of their celebration of International Women's Day, which was when I first came across her.  Sadly, their enthusiasm for one of the greatest French Baroque composers didn't seem to last beyond the need to find some female composers for Women's Day and she's had little airplay since, or at least not when I've been listening.  I would say I like the French Baroque, except that an unkind person could point out that I have no recordings of it beyond a cassette of Lully somewhere in a drawer, but nonetheless I do like the French Baroque and was delighted by the pianist's choice of opening number.

Then we had some Beethoven that was new to me and also to the friend sitting next to me, Sonata No. 4 in E flat major.  It was big and muscular and brilliant, one of those pieces of music I find easier to respect than to love.  Beethoven quite often has that effect on me, which says more about me than Beethoven.

After the interval we had a newly written piece by Kim Ashton, a selection from Ornithology, which was inspired by birds and unabashed by the fact that Charlie Parker already used the title.  This afternoon's birds were the goldfinch, the kestrel, and a third bird I didn't know.  I tried hard to listen with an open mind, while aware that my preconception was that I was not going to like it, but I'm afraid none of it seemed to me to have anything to do with goldfinches or kestrels.  If forced to guess I'd have said that it was about Brutalist architecture or collapsing icebergs or a series of lorries breaking down on the M25.  I am afraid I am hopelessly middlebrow and modern classical music is wasted on me.

Then we had two Fauré Nocturnes, perhaps chosen as a contrast or palate cleanser after the birds, romantic and effusive.  I have no recordings of any of his work except the Requiem, which I adore. Every so often I think I should get some more, and then I hear some and remember that on the whole I don't like late nineteenth and early twentieth century French music very much.  We finished up with three movements from Igor Stravinsky's Petroushka, except that that wasn't quite the end because we got a little piece of Scarlatti as an encore.  The Scarlatti was wonderful.  In my secret heart if we could have just have stuck to Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre and Scarlatti for the whole concert, and maybe slipped in a bit of Antonio Soler and even some Handel, I'd have been entirely happy, but that probably wouldn't have suited the majority.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

rest cure

I spent a second day sitting very quietly and keeping warm, apart from when I nipped down to the village to post a couple of things in time for the morning collection, and stock up on cough sweets. I don't really believe in cough medicines, and anyway coughing will help clear the gunk out of my lungs, but I am going to a piano recital tomorrow afternoon and I absolutely mustn't cough during that, or at least only during the applause.  I got a packet of thyme based lozenges for the concert, and a little bag of Fisherman's Friends which I've been necking down today.  Original menthol and eucalyptus flavour, as featured in Michael Portillo's Great British Railway Journey, made in Fleetwood in Lancashire.  I'd forgotten how much I liked them, and wish I'd bought a bigger tube now.

My chest feels much better than it did a couple of days ago, which is good news except that I am forced to conclude that trying to resume the activities of normal life makes it worse.  It's just as well I'm not currently employed by a plant nursery.  How would you explain that yes, it is a full month since you were in bed with flu, but you still can't work outside for any length of time or stand all day or talk nicely to lots of people without feeling as though you are going down with full blown bronchitis and pneumonia?  At the plant centre they did the stock take in January which meant days on end of sitting in a plastic chair in an unheated plastic tunnel leafing through an Excel printout with frozen fingers.  I'd have had a major relapse.

We watched a sci-fi romance last night, the 2011 release The Adjustment Bureau starring Emily Blunt and Matt Damon.  I caught up with a review last summer five years after the event when I was listening to podcasts of the Kermode and Mayo film review programme from before the time the Systems Administrator introduced me to it, and noted it down as something that was fun but not too deep or demanding.  There are times, like when you have a foul bronchial cough, that you don't want to have to process anything too meaningful, and so we saved Brooklyn for another day.  When I asked if we could have The Adjustment Bureau last night I was going on the note I'd made of the podcast which said it was light, snappy and funny, but forgotten the specific details.  The romance turned out to be between a dancer and an up-and-coming American politician, which gave it an extra frisson on the day of Donald Trump's inauguration.  The film was just what Mark Kermode said it would be and we both enjoyed it.  Matt Damon is always likable and heroic, Emily Blunt was lively and funny, and there were mysterious agents wearing fedoras.  It is based (probably rather loosely) on a story by Philip K Dick and so a first cousin to Blade Runner.

The only trouble with keeping a list of films to watch at some point based on reviews is maintaining a balance between genres.  You trust the critics to weed out a lot of dross, though the odd good release may get overlooked in the process, but they are limited for space in their columns and do tend to go for the heavyweight films, dealing with serious issues and packing a big emotional punch.  If you aren't careful you end up on a Friday evening with a choice between grim and grimmer.  There have been a few times when we've looked hopefully through our little pile of LoveFilm envelopes and realised we had an unalloyed miseryfest.  Nowadays we make sure we have a mixture, something thrillerish, something funny, some serious social commentary.  The hardest category to keep topped up is comedy, because comedy is hard to do well.

I'm not sure we'll be bothering with LaLa Land, despite the near universal adulation.  I love Singin' in the Rain, but neither of us are general fans of musicals, or jazz.  A musical about a brattish jazz musician, with singing and dancing which even its admirers admit are not as good as the singing and dancing in Singin' in the Rain, doesn't sound as though it would be in either of our wheelhouses. It has got an awful lot of people going, though, including Bryony Gordon learning to dance in a yellow dress.  As the owner of a yellow raincoat I can warn anybody thinking of buying a butter yellow sundress that pollen beetles find the colour irresistibly attractive.

Friday, 20 January 2017

three steps forward, two back

Alas, whatever bug I have had has lodged in my chest.  I have been hacking away since the New Year with what is rather disgustingly known as a productive cough, and by yesterday afternoon it was letting me know that there was still an underlying infection associated with that cough.  Cue lassitude, tight chest, prickling face, sore throat, and the sinking realisation that there was nothing to be done except rest indoors in front of the Aga or the stove with a regular supply of warm drinks. And there was me actually daring to arrange to meet some friends next week for coffee. Fortunately I probably can't go too far wrong sitting in the cafe at the Acorn Village for an hour, drinking coffee and maybe eating a cake if everybody isn't on a New Year diet, but it is getting very demoralising.  Today was a beautiful, calm, sunny day, the garden is full of jobs that need doing, and I didn't do any of them except check the mousetrap by the hyacinths in the greenhouse.  It had another mouse in it, and the hyacinth leaves had been chewed.

This is the stage at which in the good old days one would have gone to the doctor, demanding a prescription for antibiotics 'in case there was a secondary bacterial infection' and the GP would probably have acquiesced, in case there was and to get one out of the surgery.  Nowadays with doctors acutely aware of the looming threat of widespread antibiotic resistance, and health boards monitoring practice's prescribing habits, there is little point.  The NHS does not want to see people who have had a mild chest infection for a few weeks following flu, in the absence of other exciting symptoms like unexplained weight loss.  There is no evidence to say that I have any bacterial infection.  And antibiotics are fierce things.

I have been to see my GP a couple of times in the past decade requesting antibiotics, once when I'd been bitten on the wrist by a stray cat and again when I lodged a thorn deep in my knuckles while weeding around a rose.  I didn't like the look of the rose wound as soon as I'd done it, and nor did the doctor.  I was sent on my way with a week's supply of pills big enough for a horse, and a warning to seek medical attention immediately if red streaks started appearing up my arm.  I took the full course of pills, and red streaks did not appear up my arm, and I was very grateful to have escaped a series of progressively higher amputations before dying of blood poisoning anyway, but the pills made me feel rotten.  Really, really down.  It's a bad idea to start randomly killing off bits of your gut flora unless you have to, since it is intimately linked to your mental state as well as your digestion.  And while I have a weak chest my digestion is absolutely splendid.

So there is nothing to be done except drink tea and take things very easy until I feel better or the weather warms up, and the weather is not going to warm up any time soon.  I was going to take a turn with the cooking, instead of which the Systems Administrator volunteered to carry on until next week and set off to the supermarket while I sat in the kitchen reading gardening magazines and playing with Mr Fluffy.  Meanwhile I am painfully aware of all the things outside that need pruning, weeding, tying up and cutting back, and that I still haven't dosed the bees for varroa.  It is all very, very dull.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

fogged up

When I went into Colchester before Christmas I had a new battery fitted to my wristwatch, which had stopped.  For the past few years I've been to the little stall in what used to be Williams and Griffin, and was relieved to discover that it had survived the transition to Fenwick.  They have always been pleasant and efficient, with no hint of capriciousness. I used to go to a jewelers in Eld Lane that was part of the Co-Op group and that I felt on that basis ought to be reputable, until they suddenly announced they would not open any watch to change the battery unless they were agents for that brand.  I fled from another Colchester jewelers without letting them touch my watch when in reply to my query whether they could change the battery in a gold watch the two girls behind the till looked at each other and one said sportingly that she didn't mind giving it a go.

Watches are personal.  My gold watch was a present from the Systems Administrator.  It is a small and absolutely plain Accurist and I always wear it on an absolutely plain slim leather strap.  The glass has got lightly scratched over the years, which I suppose I could have replaced if I felt that strongly about it, and it loses time slightly, but I am very fond of it.  It is a testament to how well the SA knew my tastes, because a small plain watch was exactly what I wanted.  Come weddings, funerals, posh parties and any other rare social occasions when I can dress up in clothes that are not cat proof and the Accurist will be silently ticking away losing infinitesimal amounts of time on my wrist.

My other watch is for gardening, country walks and other activities where the gold watch might get damaged.  It is a Mondaine which I saw featured in the Guardian, and instantly fell in love with the second hand.  And the red strap, but straps can be changed.  It was the second hand that did it for me.  It is based on the Swiss railway clock, red, and the tip ends in a little red circle.  The rest of the face is very, very plain.  A total design classic, in fact.  Psychologists may argue that buying things does not in the long run make people happier, and in general they are right, but I felt enormously cheerful when I yielded to temptation and bought the Mondaine, and the red second hand (and the strap) still cheer me up each time I look at them.

According to a snippet on today's Today programme, watches are an example of a dying art form, because in the future everybody will have the time on their smartphones.  Maybe, maybe not. Things have a habit of sticking around for longer than you think they're going to.  Radio is still with us decades after the invention of television, and Colchester is even going to have a new Curzon cinema and perhaps an out of town multiplex.  I don't take my smartphone into the garden with me, and anyway it doesn't have a red second hand, and there are lots of social situations where sliding a quick glance down at your wrist seems more tactful than whipping out your phone.

It was the Mondaine that needed a new battery in December.  Watch batteries are not cheap, which makes running two watches even more of an eccentric indulgence.  Never mind, it was worth it to get that second hand ticking forwards again.  Except that when I got home I found the watch had fogged up.  It had looked fine in the warm air of Fenwick's basement, but moisture condensed out of the air inside it as soon as it got cold.  I tried putting it in the airing cupboard to dry, but alas, the woman in the shop had done a very thorough job of resealing it.  It has been in the airing cupboard for most of the six weeks since the new battery was fitted, but when I put it on this morning it fogged up again in the time it took me to let the hens out.

It is now back with the menders.  The woman on the little stand was apologetic, and had various theories as to how it could be fixed, but none of them could be done on the spot.  That means I'll have to go back into Colchester, which is a bore, since normally I save up all business in town until I have a haircut, which is only once every six weeks.  I must remember that it wouldn't really be easier to rely on the smartphone to tell the time, though.  Even apart from the fact that I like the Mondaine it would only be easier relying on the phone up to the point where I dropped it or knelt on it and broke it.

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

a mysterious affair

As I went out to let the hens into their run this morning I was puzzled by the sight of something white lying in the drive half way along the eleagnus hedge.  It took a while to sort the hens out because their water needed topping up but had frozen solid in the dish of their galvanised drinker, and I had to melt the ice before I could get the lid off.  Then I went to investigate the mystery white thing.

It was a dead cat.  A white cat with a couple of patches of brown fur on its left side.  They were quite unusual markings and I was sure that I had not seen it before.  It was not a regular visitor to the garden.  It was lying stretched out on its right side, eyes open, mouth open, tongue protruding, and it was quite dead.

I retreated to the house and shut the glass door and the cat door to keep our cats in while I thought about the situation.  I was upset.  I like cats, and here this one was lying dead in our front garden, and somebody somewhere might be worrying that it hadn't come home last night.  But where had it come from, how had it got here, and what had it died of?  If I had seen it by the side of a road I'd have said it had been hit by a vehicle, but we are nowhere near any road.  It was inconceivable that last night after it got dark somebody drove round our turning circle and ran over a strange cat. Had it been poisoned?  Or had some malevolent nutter left a dead cat in the drive?  That really didn't seem very likely either.  But poisoning was not a comfortable thought.  Would that be accidental poisoning from rodenticide, or deliberate poisoning with antifreeze?  It does happen. And last summer somebody was shooting pet cats in Great Bentley and West Bergholt.  The police even got involved, though I never read that anybody was caught or charged.

The Systems Administrator put the dead cat in a box in the pot shed, and agreed that the best thing to do was to ring up the RSPCA.  The cat might be microchipped, in which case its owner could be informed if it still had one, and we were hoping somebody might be able to give us some clue as to cause of death.  The RSPCA don't always get a good press and I feel slightly cautious of them, but I couldn't think who else to ask.  The woman who answered the phone at the local center sounded extremely kind and sensible, though, and said that the two most likely causes of death were road traffic accident and accidental poisoning.  I explained quite how far we were from a road, but she said that if it had been injured but not killed outright it might have had a very strong instinct to try and go home but collapsed en route.  They were not able to send anybody out, but if we could take it to any vet they would check for a microchip free of charge and contact the owner.  Or the RSPCA could do it.

That sounded a much better idea.  Our vet was incredibly busy the last time we went there, and the thought of turning up with a mystery dead cat in a box and no appointment did not appeal.  In fact I suppose you would leave the dead cat in the car while you went inside and explained to the receptionists what the problem was, since you probably shouldn't take the corpse into the waiting room along with other people's kittens waiting to be vaccinated, when you didn't even know what it had died of.  And so we ended up driving to Colchester with a dead cat.  If it had been our cat we would have wanted to know what had happened to it, even though the news was bad, rather than be left not knowing and nursing ever fainter hope that it might turn up.  And I rather selfishly still hoped the RSPCA would be able to give us some more idea of the cause of death.

We saw two people, both volunteers, and they both sounded confident that the poor cat had suffered a head trauma and made it as far as our drive before collapsing.  It did have a trickle of blood on the  right hand side of its head where it had been lying, though the SA couldn't tell if that was from a head wound or had come out of its mouth.  If the RSPCA staff were right it was the best outcome we could hope for as far as our own cats went.  Not rogue cat poisoners or heavy handed idiots somewhere in the locality with no idea how to lay rat poison properly.  And not a fox, which was the Systems Administrator's fear.  The cat was a neutered tom, quite old but in fair condition, though the ragged state of its ears indicated it had led a fairly feral existence, according to the RSPCA.  And it was microchipped, using an obsolete system they couldn't check online, but a phone call later they were able to tell us it was registered to a property up the road. So perhaps it had been trying to go home, poor thing.

We left it with them, and the sad task of contacting its owners.  I felt quite jangled for the rest of the morning and our cats seemed out of sorts, though whether that was the presence of the dead cat or the shock of being locked in was hard to say.  Mr Fidget went and sat in the wash basin in the downstairs cloakroom and wouldn't come out.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

going out

I went to my AGM this morning.  It was the first time I'd been out socially for a month.  In fact, I could pretty much list every face to face conversation I've had with anybody in the past month, apart from the Systems Administrator.  I had that unpleasant conversation with the neighbours between Christmas and the New Year about their dogs coming into our garden.  I went to the Highwoods Tesco on New Years Day and had a chat with the young lad on the till about cats, and called at the filling station where I spoke to confirm which pump I was at and that £45.88 sounded right.  I called in at Beth Chatto's shop where the assistant and I agreed that it was jolly chilly, and at Budgens where I said that yes, that that was all that I wanted, that being a loaf of bread and a couple of pints of milk.  I went to Waitrose, although I can't remember what we talked about at the till.  Maybe by then the novelty of talking to people was wearing off.  And took in a parcel for the Systems Administrator delivered by an Eastern European who did not want a signature, and spoke to the postman a few times, and the dustman who called a day early.  And I exchanged emails and texts with a few people (well, six) and rang up the waste recycling firm to report that my brown garden bin had not been emptied.  And that was it, the sum total of my human contacts in four weeks.  It would be pitiful, like one of those newspaper stories about isolated old people, if it were not that it was quite as many people as I could cope with.

The AGM was very properly conducted.  Turnout was over ninety per cent.  I had been warned that attendance was expected unless you had a very good excuse indeed, and took heed, making it the only AGM of any club I have ever belonged to which I have ever been to unless I was actually on the committee.  The constitution was read out in full, because that is one of the requirements of the constitution.  It ran to three pages, so the Chairman, the Treasurer and the Membership Secretary took one each.  I was pretty much with the Chairman for the first page, but by the time we got to the rules governing whether a national meeting was quorate they were beginning to lose me.  The Picts, by now Scots (living in brackets).  I am all in favour of clubs having proper constitutions and sticking to them, though, especially when they say that all committee posts must be rotated after a sensible period, having seen at first hand what can happen when one or two people become entrenched.

The outline programme of entertainments for the following year sounded interesting, and we had a very nice lunch, so it was a morning well spent.  I was exhausted by the end of it, which I hadn't expected.  How tiring can it be to sit in a room with some friendly people and then eat lunch?  As the NHS website says about flu, you'll usually start feeling better after about a week although you may feel tired for much longer.

Monday, 16 January 2017

computer says no

I hope Google's driverless cars will be more stable than their browser.  Chrome has crashed repeatedly over the past few days.  Once it crashed and I'd killed it using the task manager it refused to relaunch until I'd restarted my laptop, which in turn meant I kept having to close any spreadsheets I had open plus log back into my email account once I'd rebooted, which was a double bore since BT asks you for your email address and password, and then sends you to a screen with desultory bits of news that you don't want and that they want you to make your homepage, and make you input your details all over again.  I could not blame the browser problem on any particular website since it seemed to crash irrespective of what I was doing at the time, and as my laptop is less than eighteen months old and is otherwise behaving perfectly normally I don't think it's my computer.  I blame Google.

This afternoon the Systems Administrator uninstalled and reinstalled Chrome, while managing to save all my bookmarks.  I'm relieved about the bookmarks.  Some of them would be quick to recreate but some I would struggle to remember if they weren't there on the list: obscure plant nurseries, online sources of plant and garden related information, useful clothes and shoe shops, open gardens noted down from magazine articles that we might visit if we were ever on holiday in the area, information about art and churches, the websites of off-the-beaten track museums. Apart from my spreadsheets and documents my favourites what makes my laptop mine, otherwise I might as well just be using a terminal in the local library.

Wrinkles remain to be ironed out the next time the SA is on the case.  My laptop no longer thinks I am entitled to read The Times, when the SA added my address to his subscription a couple of months ago.  It went against the grain to pay money to Murdoch (though the SA has never felt similarly squeamish about Sky Sports) but the SA felt the need of an alternative viewpoint to balance the world views of the Guardian and the BBC.

When I came to write tonight's blog post the machine demanded that I log in to Blogger, and wanted my Google password.  I was stumped.  Google to me still means the search engine, even though I know they do lots of other things (including hosting this blog).  You don't have a password for Googling.  I hoped a prompt question might come up to tell me which password I was supposed to be remembering, but it didn't, and I had to click the box to say I had forgotten it.  Google sent me a six digit code that let me choose another one, and then I was straight into the blog, so maybe they wanted the password I created when I set the blog up.  I could remember that, and now I've had to change it.

Anyway, I'm in now, and I was going to tell you that I trimmed the box hedge around the hybrid tea roses and started pruning them, and was going to plant the tulips that should have been planted in November, only I never got that far and ended up picking up soggy cherry and birch leaves off the bottom lawn instead.

Sunday, 15 January 2017


I cleaned the kitchen.  I told the Systems Administrator yesterday that I was planning to and that there was no implied pressure for the SA to join in.  I really couldn't face the idea of cleaning until a couple of days ago, and if the SA still couldn't that was perfectly OK, except that I was not going to not clean so as to not make the SA feel guilty.  When I was a child one of our many mother's helps used to start crashing around doing housework after my parents got back from their day at the university.  My father insisted that she only did it to annoy him.  Perhaps she was trying to demonstrate how hard she worked.  She was not a very bright woman, and we were brattish children, and it can't have been very pleasant for her living in an academic house where brightness was prized above all other attributes.  I developed a taste for soda bread under her charge, and absorbed the lesson that you should be careful how you do domestic chores around other people.

The SA understood that there was no passive aggressive subtext to my outburst of cleaning, and asked slightly nervously what that was, pointing to a strange purple brown smear underneath his end of the kitchen table.  I said that I was fairly sure it was a piece of cherry compote that one of us had trodden on and not cat shit, based on the purplish tinge and its position right next to the table leg where I'd been cooking.  I think it was squashed cherry on the kitchen floor, but the brownish patch in the downstairs corridor that I've been walking past for days while refusing to look at it too closely was definitely mouse blood.  I wiped it away, along with the spaghetti shaped dark loop near the letter box and several black-brown splashes, while the SA gallantly cleaned up the pile of fresh cat sick from the chair in front of my desk.

I love cats but it cannot be denied that they make a mess.  They hunt, they bring their dead things in, and leave little puddles of blood and tiny entrails on the floor, sometimes with a garnish of grass stems.  They eat the things they catch, or else they bolt their meals down too fast, and then they are sick.  Or they don't eat the things but leave them for you to find, maybe tastefully laid out in front of the telly or perhaps hidden under a chair as a surprise.  They walk around outside on the wet muddy ground and then leave footprints on the furniture.  They moult.  Their fur will stick to everything, but especially anything with an electrostatic charge, like an electric Aga.  This is why our house has no carpets downstairs and only one rug of any value (and that has been put away upstairs since the kittens arrived), and why every chair we possess is made of wood or else covered in leather (or at least plastic imitation leather) which can be wiped, if necessary with disinfectant. No chintz, no throws.  I used to know somebody whose partner after one visit here asked her when they were going to get a cat.  Her hall and her sitting room had champagne pink fitted carpets. You could tell it just wasn't going to happen.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

the road to recovery is paved with housework

So Jaywick did not flood.  By the time we went to bed last night it looked as though it wasn't going to, after high tide had passed without incident at a string of places further up the coast, apart from a few isolated properties, and when I flicked the radio on this morning and at three minutes past eight the Today programme was already talking about Donald Trump I knew there couldn't be any major English floods to report.

The day was bright and cold, the wind able to cut through several layers of clothing with no trouble at all.  The Systems Administrator went out for half an hour to cut more firewood, while I decided that discretion was the better part of valour and that I was staying by the Aga.  Tomorrow is forecast to be milder and damp.  Hurrah.  It could finally get rid of the lumps of frozen snow still littering the garden, and then next week I might get something done.

I announced that tomorrow I was going to clean the house as I finally felt strong enough to face it and the weather forecast for Sunday was horrible while for next week it was quite good, and the SA offered to do the vacuuming.  The house has reached that tipping point of scuzziness, unbelievably dirty even by our standards, while I feel fit enough both to care and to do something about it. When you are at your most ill you don't mind what state the kitchen floor is in.  Then you do notice but can't summon the energy to do anything about it.

When you are both unwell at once you discover how low cleaning comes in the hierarchy of domestic needs.  You have to feed your animals, however little you feel like getting out of bed. You have to open the chicken house in the morning and shut it at night, and by the second or third day somebody has to go into the run to refill their water.  Luckily we had emergency reserves of cat food in the form of a large box of pouches we bought before going back to tinned food for their main meals, otherwise we would have had to buy cat food.  Human beings can exist for days if needs be on baked beans, tinned rice pudding, and whatever cheese is in the fridge, even if meals do end up resembling something out of a bizarre cookery challenge, but you can't expect your cats to live on jam and ryvita.

Apart from the need to buy cat food, it is nice to have milk for tea and so a trip to a supermarket comes fairly high up the list, once one of you feels fit to drive.  And once you start feeling like proper cooked food again then somebody has to cook it.  And then the need to do some laundry kicks in because otherwise you are going to run out of clean socks and knickers.  And unless you have a big and beautiful stack of firewood all ready chopped into logs small enough to fit in the stove somebody has to cut up some of the large lumps of wood that were left outside the workshop, if not drag more out of the actual wood.

So washing the kitchen floor and wiping the kitchen units and the Aga comes a very long way down the list, but tomorrow could be the day.

Friday, 13 January 2017

comfort eating

The lunchtime high tide has been and gone without the sea over topping the coastal defences at Jaywick.  As the morning advanced the risk receded in the judgement of the council and the police, leading to some confusion among the residents according to the local paper as people who had previously refused to leave decided that they or their family members did now want to go up to the reception centres and found that transport had been withdrawn.  Now the authorities are worried about tonight's tide, when of course it will be dark.  The trouble is, the more false alarms there are, the less likely anybody will be to take warnings seriously.  At least the council has learned from the last attempted evacuation, when people were not allowed to take their pets and some refused to leave without them.

Our first house in Essex was flooded to a couple of feet back in the big floods of 1953.  We bought it anyway, but since then we've gone uphill with each move.  I like the sea, and rivers, but am very happy not to live too close to either of them.  Delightful converted old watermills give me the willies.  Who now understands the complex system of water management that once fed them, and is it being maintained properly?  In our sandy fastness we are battered by the wind, but not water.

There was thin, barely frozen snow lying in patches on the lawn when I got up, and the merest skim of ice on the pond.  Then it snowed with big, wet flakes, and the kittens stared at it appalled through the windows as if it was the most terrible thing that they had ever seen.  Then it rained and melted most of the snow.  Hurrah.  But I did not dare to attempt to get to Dulwich when there had been snow in London with the possibility of more to come, and so I shall miss their Dutch Golden Age artist I should have liked to see.  I feared that would be the case once I didn't manage to get there before the trains shut down for Christmas.  The first couple of weeks of the New Year so often seem beset with illness and horrible weather.

By way of consolation I made waffles for lunch.  The Systems Administrator gave me a waffle iron for my birthday a couple of years ago, and I haven't used it as much as I'd have liked.  I did ask for a waffle iron, so it was not a case of being ambushed by an unwanted kitchen gadget, but the couple of times I did use it the waffles were flabby and disappointingly insubstantial, like a cross between a pancake and a cotton waffle weave blanket.  I thought the answer was to try making a yeast based batter instead of using what was essentially pancake batter with added bicarbonate of soda, but that meant mixing the batter right in the middle of the morning when I'm generally busy doing something else.

Today, watching sleet blow horizontally across the roof of the conservatory, it seemed a good morning for experimenting with batter and so I followed the recipe for My Mother's Waffles in Ruth van Waerebeek's The Taste of Belgium.  Or at least, I followed it reduced by two thirds.  Ruth van Waerebeek's mother must have wanted to make an awful lot of waffles.  The batter, enriched with quite a lot of melted butter and sugar, looked much more substantial than the aerated pancake mix I'd tried before, and bubbled convincingly as it sat on top of an upturned baking tin on the warming plate of the Aga for its requisite hour of proving, while Our Ginger, who had been sitting on the warming plate himself, sat outside the kitchen door and howled.

My first pair of waffles were slightly overcooked on the underneath, and I was too stingy with the batter for one of the second so it didn't manage to fill the iron completely and the top didn't get toasted.  I overfilled the plates for one set and the excess batter oozed out and dripped over the kitchen worktop, but by the end I was definitely getting the hang of them.  Our iron is the sort that makes two fairly substantial square waffles rather than a round of eight small ones, and I found you have to be bold and add slightly more batter than you might if you were worried about it leaking.

We ate them with whipped cream and my January store cupboard version of fruit compote, made with tinned cherries in some of their juice lightly set with cornflour and pepped up with some cherry jam.  My inner Gwyneth Paltrow told me that this was not healthy eating, but that's tough. We had bean stew last night.  It was sleeting and blowing half a gale and we have both been ill, and sometimes you need a treat.

I was pleased with the waffles, and so was the Systems Administrator who likes cherries.  You can serve them more modestly with melted butter, or I should think they would work with bacon or ham, in which case you could cut back on the sugar.  One thing puzzles me, though.  They do not come close to the waffles I remember from childhood holidays in Brittany, where I was first introduced to the delights of gaufres, which sounded like 'goffs' to my English ears.  You could get them freshly cooked from street stalls, lightly dusted with icing sugar, and I remember them being crisper and more melting than my home made efforts.  Is my memory at fault after forty years, as it is about so many other things?  Otherwise, what is the secret?

Thursday, 12 January 2017

awaiting the arctic blast

We are getting quite blasé about the Chinooks and the Systems Administrator no longer comes hurrying out of the house for a closer look at the sound of them.  I did halt from my weeding to gaze up as one passed close to the garden this morning, flying really low, and reflected on how different a Chinook must look depending on your point of view.  To us they appear interesting, if noisy, while to an injured soldier awaiting evacuation from the battlefield they represent rescue, to a member of the Taliban a threat, or a target.

A different noise made me look up later in the morning, and it was the dustmen.  I was confused since the Tendring District Council website definitely said that rubbish would be collected on Friday this week, and then back to normal collections in the week starting 16 January.  I went rushing into the house to grab the kitchen bin, and came out again to find one of them walking up to the house. I asked if they were collecting recycling as well and did I have time to go and get my paper, and he said that I did, and that they were trying to do as much as possible today.  That would seem a very sensible idea if they are afraid of the weather messing up their round tomorrow, except that most people don't put their rubbish out twenty-four hours in advance.  It was only a matter of luck that I happened to be there and hear the dustcart and was able to go and get the relevant bins.  I didn't really understand how they thought their preemptive strike is going to work, but left it to my friendly dustman to worry about.

At lunchtime the rain arrived, and that was my gardening done for the day.  It has rained all afternoon, to the great disappointment of Mr Cool who keeps going outside, getting wet, and coming in again, incredulous and indignant that it is still raining.  Poor Mr Cool.  He brought me a mouse a couple of days ago while I was weeding, and I told him that I did not want his dead thing, and I think his feelings were hurt.  He came in this morning with another mouse and gave it to Mr Fluffy, who was more appreciative.

As I looked out of the study window at the rain this afternoon I suddenly realised that the witch hazels were out.  They must have just opened.  I wandered around the back garden yesterday and didn't notice them then.  They pull the same trick every year, and I sometimes panic that they have been flowering for days without my appreciating them.  The season of a witch hazel is not very short, but it is not so long you want to miss half a week of it.  Down in the ditch bed Viburnum x bodnantense 'Charles Lamont' was studded with its pink flowers when I walked around the garden.  I actually smelt it before I saw it.

The trouble with looking at the ditch bed is that I mainly see that the jobs that need doing.  The leaves of the hybrid hellebores need cutting off.  The latest crop of goose grass seedlings needs pulling up.  The overhanging willow branches need cutting back before the snowdrop leaves can grow any taller so that our trampling feet don't damage them.  Half the herbaceous perennials in the bog bed remain to be cut down, and an iris which has grown far too large for the space needs digging out.  I might replant part of it contained by a large bottomless pot, or I might not, but I don't want it advancing in all directions for another year.  It has already overcome a blameless pink flowered Sanguisorba that lay in its path.

I do hope we don't get snow.  I know that what I hope for has no bearing at all on what weather we get, but snow is loathsome stuff when you are a gardener, breaking down shrubs and lying in icy lumps that keep you off the borders for days, quite apart from the fact that the nearest road to ever see a gritting lorry starts about a mile from our house.  Please let it be rain and not snow.  I should not grumble, though.  People are being evacuated from Jaywick because of the risk of flooding.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

experiments with cyclamen

I am beginning to make progress with my display of Cyclamen cilicium.  This was the third species of garden cyclamen I tried after starting off with C. hederifolium and C. coum, which are the two you are most likely to encounter in a garden centre.  The former presents its flowers above naked soil in the autumn, and by now the flowers are long gone but the clusters of leaves have appeared. They have scalloped edges not unlike an ivy leaf (the clue's in the name) and are often patterned with handsome splashes of silver.  If you choose your plant in leaf you can make sure you pick out a good form, though if you are worried about flower colour you might want to try and find some while they are in flower, since they could be white or any shade of pink.

Cyclamen coum flowers later, generally around now.  Their leaves are shaped like rounded hearts without the scalloped edges of the ivy leaved cyclamen, and might have interesting silver patterns, or be pale silver all over, or just plain green.  They make wispier plants than C. hederifolium, which make dense and chunky circles of foliage once established, and I think the reason why you are advised not to plant the two species together in the same area is that C. coum can be smothered by its more domineering neighbour.  Both like shade, with C. hederifolium being particularly tolerant of dry shade according to shade plant specialists Long Acre Plants.

Both grew for me pretty well around the shady edges of the lower lawn in the back garden, and even began to seed into the lawn, until as is the way with plant lovers I began to wonder about the other species.  I wasn't interested in those that would only survive in the UK under glass, not having an alpine house and having plenty of other things to worry about, but according to my books and the catalogues of various people selling cyclamen, C. cilicium was more tolerant of sun than many, and was fairly hardy.  My eye fell upon a patch of gravel in front of the house where nothing else was growing.  East facing, the cyclamen would get sun for half the day and some residual warmth and protection from the building, and anyway we are in a fairly warm corner of the country.

I started with a few, which is how I often try out new plants.  If they tell you that they are very happy you can propagate them or buy some more, and if they never come up, rapidly die, or languish miserably then you know not to waste any more expense and effort.  Unless you really want them, that is.  My usual rule is that if it dies twice I'm not trying again, though I made an exception for the notoriously difficult to establish Romneya coulteri and it was a case of third time lucky.  The Romneya is now running and rampaging through its bed as Californian tree poppies are supposed to do, when they survive at all.

The first few Cyclamen cilicium did well enough for me to persist with the experiment, though they were not very exciting for the first few years.  In appearance they are quite like C. coum with the same rounded leaves, which are agreeably patterned in silver.  The flowers are supposed to be a tad smaller and I think that mine are are.  They range in colour from pale pink to a stronger shade, and come out in autumn.  From tentative and weedy beginnings my biggest plants are now quite substantial with well furnished rosettes of foliage, and (which is what prompted me to write about them) they are blooming again now, having had one flush before Christmas.

The horticultural trade is plagued with muddle and misidentifications, and not being a cyclamen expert I wouldn't be utterly surprised if I were ever to show my plants to somebody who was to be told that they were not true C. cilicium as found in the wild in their native Turkey, but some kind of hybrid, or even that a tuber or two of C. coum had slipped in by mistake.  But they do cope with half sun, and they do flower in autumn when they are supposed to.  Whatever they are, they are very pretty.  I was sufficiently encouraged by my first foray into growing them to buy more in subsequent years.

The extraordinarily cheap tubers I got from Peter Nyssen turned out to be cheap for a reason, as things so often are: they were dried and dormant, because dried and dormant is what Peter Nyssen sells.  I should not have been surprised.  The books generally advise not drying cyclamen out but buying them as growing plants.  I planted them, not entirely sure which way up most of them should go, and they didn't all take.  If I were doing that again I'd probably start them off in pots and then plant them out as growing plants, then at least I could turn any over that I'd got the wrong way up.  The following year I got some more in active growth, I think from Broadleigh Bulbs.  The RHS website lists twenty suppliers, so they are not that hard to track down, only you are unlikely to come across them without seeking them out.

The whole cyclamen by the front door project was in danger of being derailed last summer when we first let the kittens out, and they adopted the gravel by the front door as their litter tray.  We managed to put them off by watering the whole area with a solution of peppermint shower gel, but I'm not sure whether any tubers got dug up, or if any succumbed to the nitrogen rich stream of kitten pee and poo, or indeed the dosing with peppermint shower gel.  It is vicious stuff.  I bought it originally for showering, but the Systems Administrator rejected it outright after the first use and the only time I tried washing with it tender parts of my anatomy smarted painfully.  The best plants now are growing around the legs of an iron stand holding a terracotta oil jar, where the cats couldn't get at them.

Overall it has been a slow process.  The first few plants went in as long ago as 2009, and I started trying to bulk them up into a proper display a couple of years ago.  Losses have been heavy. Growing conditions must be tough quite apart from the cat litter episode, since while the drainage is good the soil is woefully low in humus, and being under gravel the tubers don't get regularly mulched, let alone dressed with chopped pine needles as some websites suggest.  They do get some supplementary water over the summer as they are fairly close to the roots of a Pileostegia I'm trying to encourage.  But while it has been slow, this winter I feel I'm getting there.  I might even buy a few more if I see them, to fill the remaining gap, and maybe stick some ornamental iron plant stakes among them to prevent any more lavatorial incidents.  And I should remember to go and inspect the plants as they finish flowering, in case they have set seed.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

military matters and weeding

The military have been busy today, with three Chinooks flying low over the countryside.  This time the local paper picked up on the story, unlike the times when the deep thud of something being exploded makes the whole house rattle and the Systems Administrator jokes that they must have found a big one in the back of the cupboard.  The Chinooks are with the RAF's 28 Squadron, over this week from their base in Oxfordshire to practice moving men and materials around the battlefield with Colchester's 16 Air Assault Brigade.  The Chinooks are impressive in a massive, stately way and it's interesting to find out what they're doing for once.

A large, fat, dark greenish grey military plane of some kind flew past between us and the lettuce tunnels, low and incredibly loud.  I thought vaguely it must be some sort of bomber, and then that it didn't look vintage and I don't think we do bombing like that nowadays, so I asked the SA, who hadn't seen it but said it must have been the new European transport aircraft, the A400M, that was being rough field landing tested up at Woodbridge last year.  A picture of it had found its way into the article about the Chinooks, though with no explanation from the paper as to what it was, but the SA said the two flypasts were nothing to do with each other.

Another article in the Times confirmed that there was a virus induced outbreak of what was described as a lingering cough, and quoted several doctors imploring the public to ignore the advice on the NHS website to seek medical advice for coughs lasting more than three weeks, so long as they were otherwise feeling generally better and not suffering from breathlessness or unexplained weight loss or coughing up blood.  That sounds like us, gradually feeling generally better but still coughing, and far from unexplained weight loss I am suffering from entirely explained weight gain from inactivity and too much consolatory ice cream.

Making the most of the warmer weather before the next icy blast arrives I got on with weeding and deadheading in the gravel planting in the middle of the turning circle (which gave me a ringside view of the A400M, while the SA missed it).  Another attractive but slightly terrifying self seeder is fennel.  I grow the bronze sort and as I admire the silhouette of its flat topped, radiating clusters of seed heads in early winter, I can never quite forget that every one is poised to present me with a crop of new little fennels that will have to be pulled out of the gravel by hand.  Fennel is a tap rooter, and new plants rapidly become resistant to being pulled up, the leaves breaking away in your fingers and leaving the little white root to shoot anew.  It is particularly difficult to grub out when it seeds between paving slabs.  I have read of people who use the feathery young foliage as a companion to spring tulips but then cut it down so as not to have to deal with the seed heads, but the sulphur yellow flowers and then the architectural outline in autumn are attractive.

Inspecting the gravel close up as I weeded confirmed that I needed to order a couple of bags and top up the thin bits.  The garden would easily take three or four bags, but I don't want to commit to spreading out more than two at a time.  The spot where I would like to have them set down, just inside the entrance so that the lorry doesn't have to manoeuvre inside the garden, is unfortunately blocked by brambles and a thicket of sea buckthorn shoots that have sprung up in the past year.  I am getting exasperated with the sea buckthorn, since great lumps of the original plants that were supposed to be providing a screen at the boundary seemed to die late last summer, and meanwhile the roots are advancing into the drive and trying to conquer new territories.  I wish it would just stay where I'd put it and do the job it was supposed to do.  I don't want the gravel lorry in the garden because I need to trim the eleagnus hedge before we have any more lorries, and I am further away from being able to order gravel than ever if I have to cut the whole hedge first.

As it is a great lump of hedge needs tying in and tidying up where it got caught in the wing mirror of a huge truck whose driver obstinately tried to drive up to the house, instead of stopping at the gate and walking up to the front door.  I presume he thought he was saving himself some time, but it took him so long to back out and he made such a hash of it that he'd have been far better off stopping short.  Once he'd finally extracted himself from the garden and opened the back of the enormous truck it was entirely empty except for one eight by four foot sheet of modelling foam that the SA had bought online.  It is much cheaper bought in bulk, apparently.  There were a couple of pallets which I thought the driver might have given me after he'd made such a mess of my hedge, but he said No.

Monday, 9 January 2017

dead heading

Rain was forecast for later, but later is not the same as now, and I managed to get some more weeding and chopping down done before it arrived at lunchtime.  In an ideal world I'd leave all the old flowering stems for another month or six weeks so that the birds could eat the seeds, but there wouldn't be time to tidy every border in the second half of February.  And the first snouts of bulbs are already starting to push their way through the gravel, so I need to get it weeded before they get too tall and vulnerable to being trodden on, and certainly before the iris start flowering.  Last year I didn't manage to get it done in time, and felt rather wistful as the bulbs had their annual weeks of glory surrounded by mess.

It is a slow process, apart from having to grub up the wretched weedy vetch, as I go round deadheading before cutting the old flowering stems down.  They are destined for the compost heap, but I don't want the compost full of Agapanthus and Dierama seeds because the heap won't get hot enough to kill them.  That sounds ungrateful.  Who could object to having more elegant South African flowers for free?  Indeed, I love both of them, but that's not to say I want them scattered through every border I ever use the compost on.  Both are prolific self seeders, the seeds of the Agapanthus like pointed black peppercorns and the Dierama seeds solid, glistening, orange-brown, angular bodies a bit smaller than a match head.  The old flower heads both went in an old compost bag ready to go in the brown council recyling bin, along with the spent flowering stems of the evening primroses.  Even so I shall be hauling dozens of unwanted Dierama seedlings out of the gravel.

The evening primroses self sow with irrepressible enthusiasm.  I don't know for sure what species they are, since I grew them from seed collected from plants growing on the beach at Dunwich.  Or rather, I grew their ancestors and they have kept going ever since by seeding, for they are biennials.  They fit the description of Oenothera biennis, originally a north American species but one which is widely naturalised in temperate regions elsewhere, according to Wikipedia.  I like them.  They grow enthusiastically in the gravel with no supplementary watering or feeding, which is more than you could say of about ninety-nine per cent of plants offered for sale in the average garden centre, and they flower over a long period from high summer into autumn.  The flowers are yellow, but since I am not somebody who regards disapproval of yellow flowers as a badge of good taste that doesn't matter.  I have seen goldfinches feeding on the seeds in late winter, which is nice. But they do seed.  Boy, do they seed.  Fat little lettuce coloured rosettes of leaves come up in abundance all over the gravel and have to be prised out several times every year.  I am not even taking the old flowering stems up to the bonfire heap this time, to avoid having a new colony forming near the compost bins, but snipping them up in situ and stuffing them straight into the bag of rubbish.

I will not groom the dead, brown leaves out of the Watsonia pillansii for now.  This is another South African, and I think the gravel is drier than it would like since leaves always seem to be going brown.  Either they are too dry or they are incorrigably messy growers.  They have self sown as enthusiastically as the Dierama since I first planted them out a couple of years ago, but I won't start counting my chickens until some of the babies have reached flowering size.  Watsonia is not the hardiest thing for a UK garden, and I shall leave the old leaves in place to help protect the crowns until spring.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

rain sonata

I am still enchanted by the cello transcription of the Brahms violin sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78. I heard it performed at one of the local music societies, and found the opening tune of the first movement delightful, and strangely familiar since I didn't have a recording of it and didn't think it got that much airtime on Radio 3, let alone Classic FM.  It felt like something Mendelssohn might have written after his trip to Scotland, lilting and folk inspired.  Perhaps that was why it seemed familiar, not because I knew the sonata itself but because it reminded me of something else?  It took a little digging to find a recording of the cello transcription that wasn't appended to practically the whole of Brahms' music for cello at a correspondingly hefty price, but Maria Kliegel on Naxos obliged and somebody kindly gave me a copy for Christmas so I have been listening to it virtually on a loop while cooking.

I mentioned my new found enthusiasm to my uncle the retired Radio 3 producer, who approved of the Brahms and of Maria Kliegel.  I loved Maria Kliegel's verdict on her career with Naxos.  Her friends were rather sniffy about her going to work for a budget label, asking whether she couldn't record for Deutshe Grammophon.  It was not that simple, she had told them, and anyway, years later all her recordings were still in print.

I am beginning to think that the reason why it sounded familiar might be that it gets used in all sorts of TV soundtracks, so I have heard bits of it without ever knowing what they were.  I thought I recognised a snippet in the final episode of Simon Sebag Montefiore's history of Vienna, by way of illustrating late nineteenth century Viennese culture.  I should probably get a recording of the original version for violin now.  The little tune is a total earworm, but at least I know what it is.  It took me ages and a fruitless trawl through the entire waltzes of Chopin to track down the waltz used in the soundtrack of Waltz with Bashir, which in the end it turned out to be by Schubert and not Chopin at all, though looking on the bright side I ended up with Stephen Hough's excellent Chopin disc which I enjoyed anyway, after the initial disappointment that it didn't contain the tune I was looking for.

Today was much warmer.  It wasn't just me that thought so: the bees were out foraging on the mahonia.  I decided that if it was warm enough for the bees to fly it was warm enough for me, and spent a few useful hours tidying up the gravel planting in the middle of the turning circle.  The first spikes of bulb foliage are already appearing, and the sooner it is done the better, quite apart from the fact that I still haven't managed to sow the Tulipa sprengeri seeds I was given.  I should have sown them as soon as I got them, since the seed is said to germinate better fresh, but there didn't seem any point until I had weeded the ground where they were going.

My top nuisance weed in the gravel at this time of year is a fine leaved and innocent looking wild vetch.  When small it looks so elegant and delicate you could be tempted to leave it, but if left it forms great smothering mats of foliage while the flowers are nothing to write home about.  The roots are extremely reluctant to pull out of the ground even when the plants are tiny, and it takes careful weeding to extract the vetches without pulling up all the emerging seedlings of Nigella damascena.